This Point of View was submitted by Glenn Niles, superintendent of the Arkport Central School District.
A growing number of parents and caregivers statewide are planning to opt their children out of participating in standardized tests administered in public schools across the country this spring.
We in the Arkport Central School District understand parents have questions and concerns about the tests, which are scheduled to take place in April for students in grades 3-8. And while we understand some parents’ wish to have their children refuse to take the upcoming state assessments, we’re also concerned about the incomplete and, in some cases, inaccurate information about test refusal that is being promoted across social media channels and elsewhere — namely that the tests have no value, that they are overly punitive to teachers and that the information they provide is not used.
We urge parents to decide about their children’s participation in the upcoming exams only after thoughtful and informed consideration.
After 20 years working in New York public schools, I know first-hand the essential role that testing plays in the learning cycle; good teaching and learning depend on understanding what students know. But in the opt-out storm now raging around New York and across the nation, I fear the primary purpose — and ultimate value — of student assessment is being clouded by politics and the misdirected frustration of some well-meaning groups. Test refusal has become the latest political football in a game that ultimately sidelines local school districts and the students entrusted to their care.
I understand the impulse to rage against the machine. But the local school district is not the machine. For those who don’t know, school superintendents and Boards of Education have no say in the administration of standardized state tests to students in grades 3-8 in English language arts and math. The testing is a national mandate as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002. Furthermore, here in New York, all schools are required to have a 95 percent participation rate in state testing, as noted in a January 2013 memo to school districts from the New York Education Department (NYSED).
When the opt-out movement gained momentum last year and many districts’ participation dropped below the 95 percent mark, the state education department calculated the weighted average of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 participation rates for those schools. In Arkport, for example, the 2013-14 rate of 87 percent was offset by 2012-13’s rate of 96 percent. But that was a one-time fix. Last year’s rate will not help us this year.
For those that fail to reach this minimum threshold, consequences can include a loss of control over how federal Title I funds can be spent and/or the imposition of state intervention measures, such as the mandated preparation of new curricular and academic intervention plans; data analysis followed by strategic plans to address identified problems; implementation plans; mid-year plan reviews, final reports, etc. It goes on and on. I’ve done it all before, and it’s an enormous drain of time and other resources.
Specifically, if Arkport fails to reach a 95 percent participation rate in the state tests, we’ll likely have to re-do our District Comprehensive Education Plan (DCEP) and School Comprehensive Education Plan (SCEP), which will siphon away instruction time from teachers. We will also be required to participate in mandatory trainings in Albany; shift the focus of our professional development; and be required to set aside significant local, state and federal funds for “parent engagement.”
In short, we’ll lose a lot of local control and valuable time that would be better spent in the classroom with our students and teachers.
As important as it is for us to have the last word on how we spend the tax dollars set aside for the education of Arkport children, the real value in state testing is what it accomplishes in the teaching-learning relationship.
Standardized tests serve as an objective assessment of all students at a particular grade level and as a measuring stick of students’ understanding of the skills and knowledge embodied in the New York State Learning Standards. Without standardized testing, there is no way to compare students in one school or district with students in other schools and other locations, or against any objective measure of achievement.
All tests are meant to identify and help bridge the gaps that exist between what people know and what they should know in order to move to the next grade, be accepted in a college or vocational school, get a license, or earn a promotion at work. Schools use standardized test results to shine a light on skill and knowledge gaps — generally by grade level and specifically by student — so teachers can plan how best to fill them.
In addition, districts use state assessment results as one measure in determining what services or supports a student may need in school, such as academic intervention services in reading and math.
Some opposition to state testing stems from the state’s use of the test results in New York’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) ratings system used to evaluate teachers and principals. Currently, 20 percent of a teacher’s or a principal’s evaluation is derived from “student growth,” which can be based on state test results, depending on which grade level/subject they teach or oversee. “Growth scores” are based on how students perform on state exams compared to similar students across the state. Teachers are assigned growth scores based on demonstrated student growth as measured by these standardized assessments. Interestingly, and ultimately, it is not students’ individual achievement scores that matter for the purpose of teacher evaluations. It does not matter how many 1s , 2s, 3s or 4s any single teacher’s students achieve. What matters, and has always mattered, is whether or not a teacher’s students have demonstrated growth, from one year to the next.
Education law states that parents have the primary responsibility for their children’s education, and the decisions they make for their children should be respected. And I don’t dispute that. But as an educator, I understand the value in measurement and the penalties for non-compliance. At Arkport, each one of us is committed to ensuring our students are learning, growing and preparing as best they can during every one of the 182 instructional days in the school year. We accomplish this through a daily cycle of teaching, learning and assessing. We ask students to show us what they know every day, using a wide variety of assessment tools.
For us, the state exams are no more or less important than any other assessment we give our students at any time during the school year — all of which are used to help us support our students by planning appropriate instruction for them. If you sincerely wish to support teachers, consider providing them with all the tools they need to provide your children with all the services they need.